2018 Herndon Town Council Election: The misleading sample ballot, the lawsuit, and who I am voting for

I’ve worked in the Town of Herndon since 2007, lived here since 2012, and owned a home here since 2013. Last year, I had my first child. Over time, my interest in the future of this community has grown substantially — I want Herndon to be a safe and vibrant town for my family.

This year, for the first time, I decided to do significant research about the Herndon Town Council election. I’ve met every candidate and discussed their vision for the next two years of Herndon. I’ve read every candidate’s campaign materials and platforms. I’ve read their illuminating Q&A’s in Oak Hill/Herndon Connection.

Given the amount of time and thought I have put into this election, I have decided to share my decision about who I will vote for, and why.

Before I share my decisions, I will provide a little bit of background on my personal values, the political landscape of Herndon, and some headline-grabbing drama.

Please contact me at danstalcup@gmail.com if you have any questions or feedback. I would love to hear the perspective of other Herndon residents.

My Values for Herndon’s Future

As I share my endorsements, please keep in mind the values I used to make my selections.

  • Progress. I am excited about Herndon’s future. Planning for redevelopment of downtown has come a long way, and, by all accounts, is not far from finalization. I believe a redeveloped, vibrant downtown will greatly increase the character and flavor of Herndon, and will provide a great community center for residents of Herndon to connect. I care about smart planning of other projects, too, including the upcoming Herndon Metro station. I also believe in the more abstract kind of progress — elevating community discourse and behavior to be positive, safe, inclusive, and forward-thinking.
  • Collaboration. Herndon is a small, tight-knit town. It’s a place for respectful consensus, not divisive politics. I value candidates that will work together with respect for all viewpoints, yet still drive towards a shared solution.
  • Accessibility. As part of Herndon’s small town feel, I believe that the government should be accessible to all citizens. I believe Councilmembers should make themselves available to one-on-one meetings with citizens, and decision-making should be open to the community.
  • Balance. While I believe Herndon should strive for progress, I also believe all efforts should be undertaken judiciously. For example, The Council and Town Manager have done a great job preserving the tax rate while still advancing exciting efforts like the downtown redevelopment.

A few words on the Democratic sample ballot

Regardless of your political beliefs, voters should understand which parties endorse what candidates.

Herndon Town Council and Mayor candidates are required to run as independents. However, they are not barred from receiving endorsements from party-run organizations.

All incumbent candidates (Lisa Merkel, Jennifer Baker, Sheila Olem, Signe Friedrichs, Bill McKenna, Grace Wolf Cunningham) plus two new candidates (Joe Plummer, Cesar del Aguila), sought endorsement by the local Democratic party. Only six of seven inquiring Council candidates (plus Ms. Merkel as mayor), could receive endorsements.

All candidates except for Grace Wolf Cunningham were recommended for endorsements from the party. However, all candidates except Olem, Friedrichs, and del Aguila declined the endorsement. At least some candidates whom I have spoken to did so because they did not want to sign a pledge to support and vote for all endorsed candidates. (More on the candidates below.)

Adding to the confusion and trouble, the Fairfax Democrats district that selected endorsements is predominantly non-Herndon residents.

The official Democratic sample ballot is not a complete representation of which Herndon Town Council candidates associate with the Democratic party. In my opinion, it is a bit of a debacle: As so many candidates declined their endorsements, it presents a skewed picture of the actual race and will mislead many Democratic-leaning voters who have not researched the Council elections.

Click the thumbnail below to see a corrected sample ballot of all candidates that were recommended for endorsement by Fairfax Democrats.

Click to see alternate Democratic sample ballot

A few words on the lawsuit

On September 24, two Councilmembers plus one new candidate — Sheila Olem, Signe Friedrichs, and Cesar del Aguila — sued Grace Wolf Cunningham for malicious prosecution.

Please read the Fairfax Times summary of the case, and note that it is reported almost entirely from the perspective of the plaintiffs.  A letter to the Herndon Connection editor agreed that the reporting is one-sided here.

I’ve read every article I could find on the topic, read plaintiff quotes, spoken to the defendant and several third parties, and come to my own conclusion: I’m not a lawyer, but based on the evidence I have seen, the lawsuit against Councilmember Cunningham is baseless, inappropriate, and distracting from real discourse.

While I sympathize with Olem, Friedrichs, and del Aguila for feeling frustrated by ticky-tacky ad complaints by Cunningham that were dismissed, I find it difficult to believe that the complaints were harassment or a danger to their candidacy: I’ve been following the race closely and had no idea the “Stand By Your Ad” complaints were filed until the news of the lawsuit broke. I hadn’t noticed or cared; how many voters truly would have?

The contention that the complaints were in response to Cunningham missing out on the Democratic endorsement seems speculative and personal. These type of political theatrics — unless against something truly injurious — do not represent the collaborative, small-town feel Herndon thrives on.

A few words on the art center and town budget

On April 24, 2018, Herndon Town Council faced some unusual drama in its attempt to pass its tax rate and budget. You can read a summary on the Herndon Connection here, and watch the web-cast of the session here. Two council members suggested a surprise continuance in passing the budget to look at raising the meals tax.

Central to the question about the tax rate is the issue of how much the Town of Herndon will fund the upcoming Arts Center. Part of Herndon’s small-town charm is its strong contingent of artists and creators. Key parts of many candidates’ platforms relate to how much they believe Herndon should fund the Arts Center.

I encourage you to read Herndon Connection Candidates Q&A — especially questions #2, #3, and #5 — for more info.

I personally support a balanced approach where Herndon supports the Center, without imposing significant tax burdens on residents. I will expand a bit when discussing some specific candidates later in this article.

Herndon Mayor: Who I am voting for

Lisa Merkel

I know that Lisa Merkel is running unopposed, so this is not a contentious selection. However, I would vote to re-elect “Mayor Lisa” even if she was running against someone.

Under Lisa Merkel, Herndon has thrived. Downtown redevelopment is nearly underway. She has elevated the town’s image and inclusive, small-town feel by building consensus and thinking forward.

She’s also transformed the Town Council from a partisan battleground to a progress-advocacy group. Nearly all votes have gone 7-0 or 6-1 in her tenure, and — despite the claims of her increasingly few (and unhinged) scorners — this has been emblematic of hard work and bridge-building prior to Council meetings, not malice.

Ms. Merkel is transparent and honest, a kind person, and a great mayor. She has my vote.

Herndon Town Council

Below is a ranked-order list of the town council members: the first few of which I will be voting for, the rest of which I will not.

The top of the list are my favorite candidates, the bottom of the list my least-favorite. Note that I believe every (or nearly every) candidate has a mindset of civic service, and would strive to make Herndon the best town possible. I do not begrudge anyone voting for any of these candidates.

Who I am voting for

Bill McKenna

Mr. McKenna, an incumbent, is one of my favorite people in Herndon. When you think small town advocacy and leadership, you think of people like Bill.

Mr. McKenna is a frequent face at Herndon events, and often represents the town on commissions. He has made differences both big and small: He champions downtown development as a policy and budget wonk, but also dedicates his time to things like reading to elementary school kids and supporting the Herndon Youth Advisory Council. He is very transparent, providing frequent email and social media updates about town goings-on.

His recent inspiring effort has been to lose weight while being active around Herndon. He’s lost 100 lbs and counting — go get ’em, Bill!

Jennifer Baker

The current Vice Mayor has been an outstanding voice for Herndon. She’s helped lead the town to the verge of downtown redevelopment and Metro connection. She’s done so while articulating a specific, exciting vision of Herndon as a small town that supports innovators in arts and other domains.

Ms. Baker also has constantly advocated for inclusive discourse and progress. She’s a beloved figure around town, and is always a delight to talk to. She has my vote this Election Day to continue the Town’s forward direction.

Joe Plummer

Joe is a newbie to the Herndon Town Council, but he is extremely impressive. His passion for, and knowledge of, sustainability principles is evident from a first conversation with him. The UN has declared climate change to be the most important issue of the near future, and Joe can be a voice for Herndon to make a positive impact in that field.

Though he is a fresh face, he has plenty of experience on town boards and commissions, and has demonstrated desire and skill for collaborating with incumbent Councilmembers. He has great ideas for topics like mass transit, fiscal responsibility, and town walkability. He’s also a lifelong resident — he peppers his social media with pictures of him growing up around town.

Grace Wolf Cunningham

Ms. Cunningham is the most experienced and distinguished member of the Herndon Town Council. She’s also an inspiring figure: She was the first Korean-American woman in an elected position in Virginia history. I strongly admire her social progressive streak, which she highlights in her campaign video on Facebook.

I am slightly alarmed by her central role in the lawsuit and sample ballot drama. As I’ve learned more about the situation, I believe she has acted responsibly and consistently, though the “Stand By Your Ad” complaints have the optics of pettiness, even if she believed them valid violations. I certainly think she should not be disqualified from consideration.

Policy- and experience-wise, Ms. Cunningham is my favorite candidate on the ballot, and I hope she will be able to serve a fifth term.

Who I am not voting for

Though Herndon residents are allowed to vote for up to six candidates for the Council, they can vote for fewer. I only have high enough confidence in four candidates to give them my vote. I do not plan on voting for the rest of the candidates, though I believe all (or most) of them would dutifully serve Herndon if elected.

Pradip Dhakal

I waffled multiple times on whether I would endorse Mr. Dhakal with my vote. He has a lot going for him: He would bring a fresh young voice to the Council, plus some much-needed diversity. He seems very congenial and collaborative, as well as driven.

I have two hesitations voting for him, and they are sufficient that I do not plan to vote for him in this election. First, he seems very inexperienced with local government, unlike some of the other non-incumbent candidates; his political voice still needs refinement. Second, his passion seems to be entrepreneurship, which is a fairly small aspect of Councilmember responsibility. (To be fair, he has emphasized more germane topics, like budgets, traffic, and downtown development, in recent campaign material.)

I am a fan of Mr. Dhakal and am excited to have him as a future leader of Herndon. I just feel like he’s not quite ready — I’d love to see him work on a town committee aligned with his interests, like the Economic Development Advisory Committee.

Signe Friedrichs & Sheila Olem

I’m going to discuss Ms. Friedrichs’ and Ms. Olem’s candidacy together because they have similar platforms, as well as similar strengths and weaknesses as candidates.

Both candidates are current Councilmembers who have served Herndon wonderfully. They have strived for progress and unity, and have made Herndon a better place. I am proud to have had them as my representatives, and I would not be disappointed if they are elected again.

However, both Councilmembers have engaged in troubling political behavior in recent months that has disqualified them from my vote. Their longstanding commitment to collaboration, one of my most important values in local government, seems to have deteriorated.

On April 24 (here’s a summary and the webcast), after months of work by the Council to seek public input and achieve consensus on the budget, both Ms. Olem and Ms. Friedrichs unexpectedly voted against the budget with a desire to consider raising the meal tax. As the budget and tax rate needed 5 of 6 votes to pass, but 4 of 6 votes to continue to the next meeting, this dramatic move put the council in a deadlock, of which Ms. Friedrichs eventually relented, securing a 2019 Herndon budget.

While the substance of their request was reasonable — to delay passage of the budget to reconsider the tax rate — the theatrical surprise (obvious in the other Councilmembers) after months of work, is the sort of political shenanigans that needs to stay out of small town Herndon.

Next, neither Ms. Olem nor Ms. Friedrichs opted to decline endorsement from Fairfax Democrats in solidarity with the rest of the incumbent Councilmembers. Of course this is a valid choice of theirs, but does not show the unity and shared vision I expect of our Council.

The last and most troubling action is that they have sued another Councilmember and candidate over something that is, from my perspective, non-injurious. In turn, they’ve impacted Ms. Cunningham’s campaign worse than she did theirs. It’s tacky, vaudeville politics that could, at worst, impact the legitimacy and stability of Herndon’s Town Council.

Although they’ve served Herndon well, and may continue to do so, I believe their actions the last six months are disqualifying.

Ms. Friedrichs:

Ms. Olem:

Roland Taylor & Sean Kenis

By all accounts I’ve heard, both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Kenis are men of integrity who truly want the best for Herndon. Both have a history of public service. Mr. Taylor was the president of my homeowners association, and he ran a well-organized board. Both men, particularly Mr. Kenis, have campaigned diligently and articulated clear visions for Herndon’s future.

However, I disagree with many pieces of their platforms, to the point that I am not comfortable lending them my vote.  In fact, I think many of their platform items would be regressive to Herndon’s continued progress as a great and inclusive small town.

Mr. Kenis, for example, has discussed lowering taxes. Yet Herndon runs a very lean budget and has held the tax rate steady for years. The increase in tax revenue he cites is simply the effect of increased home values, and tax cuts would heavily favor owners of expensive houses.

Mr. Kenis also has suggested reverting Herndon’s local voting back to May, instead of the national Election Day in November. He claims this would decrease partisanship and block-voting. Candidates would be true independents, he argues. What he fails to mention is that turnout tends to be very suppressed in offseason elections, and tend to disproportionately draw certain demographics (white, elderly, wealthy). It’s hard enough for everyone to find a couple hours off to vote in November; adding another in May just makes it even more difficult for those with hourly jobs or young families.

Mr. Taylor, meanwhile, uses quite a bit of anti-developer rhetoric in his promotional materials. I fear that Mr. Taylor would drag his heels in helping Herndon complete downtown redevelopment and Metro preparation.

I believe both to be good, hardworking, and well-intentioned candidates. However, I can’t give either of them my votes.

Mr. Taylor:

Mr. Kenis:

Cesar del Aguila

Mr. Aguila is a longtime vocal Democrat in the Northern Virginia area. I share many of his idealogies, and I strongly wish that Herndon had more Hispanic representation.

Yet, I believe he is a poor candidate for Herndon Town Council due to his aggressive, occasionally theatrical, approach to politics. Please do not vote for Mr. del Aguila.

He has displayed an appetite for aggressive approach to politics is inappropriate on a small town council. This is most noteworthy in his recent lawsuit against Ms. Cunningham. (Unlike Ms. Olem and Ms. Friedrichs, Mr. del Aguila does not have the strong history of service on the Town Council to counter-balance this act.)

Mr. del Aguila proudly boasts a disruptive approach to progress that is not appropriate for Herndon Town Council, but would be better suited in other positions.

I’ve spoken to multiple veterans of the Northern Virginia political landscape who roll their eyes and cited Mr. del Aguila’s approach as a firebrand and political grenade-thrower, regardless of the actual stakes: He caused rifts and broke tradition, riling up and dividing groups rather than unifying.

This is NOT the type of voice and leadership we need on Herndon Town Council.

It’s also not hard to draw a line between Mr. del Aguila and the budget battle on April 24 I mentioned in Ms. Olem’s and Ms. Friedrich’s section. Both Ms. Olem and Ms. Friedrich support heavy, burdensome town investment in the arts, and Mr. del Aguila is a board member of Arts Herndon. The three have appeared together in campaigning.

Some in Herndon leadership that I have spoken to have speculated that Mr. del Aguila has encouraged current Councilmembers to engage in his aggressive, dramatic tactics in the name of small wins, and would continue to if elected. This is an attitude we need to avoid in lovely Herndon — a town that should be unified and service-based, not headline- or lawsuit-based.

Thank you very much for reading this. I put a lot of thought and time into it. Did you appreciate this? Do you think I made some mistakes or missed information? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at danstalcup@gmail.com.

Let’s continue to make Herndon a great town to live in. Please vote on Tuesday, November 6!